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Fermented Hot Sauce

Finished fermented hot sauce

Finished fermented hot sauce

An article on grist caught my attention because it reminded me that “lacto-fermentation” is the proper term for what I have been referring to as “wild fermentation”.  By this process lactobacillus create acid as a by-product of consuming the sugar present in brined vegetables.  The salt of the brine gives the lactobacilli a head start on other micro-organisms (like yeast and mold) that otherwise would cause the food to become unpalatable or even dangerously inedible.   I have used this process three times now to make dill pickles and a couple times to make sauerkraut but cucumbers and cabbage are very popular, mainstream choices for natural fermentation.  Hot peppers, I think, are a bit more daring.

That being said this is a very easy and approachable recipe.  I know that when a lot of North Americans read the words “fermented” and “sauce” so close together they can’t help but think of those (I think, excellent) fish-based concoctions which “taste better than they smell”.  This is not the case here.  Even while fermenting the peppers smell grassy, spicy, and well, peppery.  Compared to a crock of fermenting cucumbers and especially a container of fermenting cabbage the peppers are a breeze.

I visited the farmers’ market at Mel Lastman Square a couple week ago and picked up a variety of hot peppers.  Pickings were slim for small, red peppers back in September so I bought a pint of the (still quite hot) yellow banana peppers.  I knew that I wasn’t going to strain out the pepper flesh, skins, and seeds from the sauce and wanted more flavour than just killer heat for my sauce so my objective was to have the banana peppers act as filler and contrast for the hotter, smaller peppers.

A variety of hot pepper washed in the sink

A variety of hot pepper washed in the sink

After washing the peppers I wedged them tightly into two litre-size Mason jars.  Into both jars I poured a 5% brine solution to cover the peppers–I needed about a litre of water plus 50 grams of salt. The “shoulders” of the standard (not wide-mouth) Mason jars and the tight fit combined to keep the peppers below the level of the brine.  I covered the mouth of both jars with a clean dish cloth affixed with an elastic and stashed them in a cool, dark place.  I’ve come to believe that covering a fermentation container is essential.  I can’t explain why because I know that the vegetables and the container aren’t totally sterile to begin with but this step seems to inhibit moldy scum.

After seven days of fermenting there is a bit of scum and some tiny bubbles on the surface of the brine

After seven days of fermenting there is a bit of scum and some tiny bubbles on the surface of the brine

I checked on the fermenting peppers after seven days.  For the first time I realised what fermentation recipes mean when they say to look for bubbling to stop as an indication that fermentation is complete; I could see tiny bubbles surfacing in one of the jars every twenty seconds or so.  These were only visible because the Mason jars are clear glass and were on a counter in full sunlight.  I have no idea how I could be expected to detect this under different conditions (like in the dark-colour lined crock I use for pickles).  After another four days (eleven total) the fermentation was complete.  I think next time I’ll speed up the fermentation by using a weaker brine closer to the 3.6% that the gentleman in this youtube video suggests as he makes fermented hot sauce to the stylings of Mr. James Brown.  (He’s in the second half of the video–the first is an excellent run-down of select hot pepper varieties–and if, like me, you can’t stand his pretentiously stoner voice just skip to 4:28 of the clip when the recipe is displayed in text on the screen).  This guy is even more out there than Clifton Middleton of tomato seed saving fame.

Pickled peppers ready to be de-stemmed and chopped

Pickled peppers ready to be de-stemmed and chopped

As far as hot sauce recipes go this is relatively simple after the fermentation ends.   Just de-stem the pickled peppers (sorry), blitz in a blender with some vinegar and brine, bottle, and refrigerate.  To the peppers I ended up adding a cup of white, distilled vinegar and half a cup of brine.  The litre Mason jar (four cups) is about eighty-five percent full so I probably had just over two cups of fermented, pureed peppers.

Hot peppers have not done well in the garden at the cottage.  Unfortunately, I tend to treat them as an after-thought because they are the last plants to go in the garden.  By the time the soil temperature reaches what it needs to be (usually the middle to end of June) most of the space has been allocated.  I’ve tried placing the pepper plants between tomato plants and this looks like it is going to work until early July rolls around and because the tomatoes have been in the ground for more than a month they can better take advantage of the increased heat, put on a growth spurt (also because tomatoes are just genetically taller plants), and steal most of the sun from the peppers.  Next year I’m going to put the hot peppers in pots like we have done (with great success) with the eggplants and zucchini this year.  Making a hot sauce like this seems like a great way to extend the usefulness of a crop that ripens all at once in late September.

This sauce is really hot.  And I knew it was going to be that way when I was de-stemming and pureeing the peppers because I have an odd pseudo-allergic reaction to hot peppers.  When I eat spicy food my scalp tingles and itches–the same thing happens when I cut the grass–but with this process I didn’t even have to taste the sauce for the reaction to kick in–just the smell was enough.  Also, I know it’s a natural reaction for cooks to test a blender creation by peeling the lid off of the blender and poking their nose in for a whiff.  Don’t do this.  The potent combination of vinegar and fermented peppers sent me reeling across the kitchen in a minute-long coughing fit.  Think pepper spray.  The unpleasantness was only because of the agitation in the confined space of the blender.  I tasted the sauce on some bread and it is great.  There is a lot of heat but also the fruity, pepper flavours that I wanted and a lingering, complex aftertaste that the fermentation contributes.

Fermented Hot Sauce

  • 1 pint yellow banana hot peppers
  • 1/2 pint assorted hot peppers
  • 1 small head garlic, cloves separated, peeled, and lightly smashed
  • 40 grams kosher salt
  • 1 L filtered water
  • 1 cup distilled white vinegar

Note: The only quantities given which need to be exact are those that determine the ratio of salt to water in the brine.  Make enough brine to cover the peppers completely in whatever container you use and use enough vinegar to thin the sauce as much as you like.

Another Note: Whenever natural fermentation is desired water straight from the tap should be avoided.  It may have too much chlorine, though I have in the past (absentmindedly) used Toronto’s tap water without a problem.  Non-municipal water is probably best (so long as it’s safe to drink), filtered tap water is good, and in a pinch you can leave the required amount of tap water standing in a wide-mouthed container for half an hour so that the chlorine will evaporate.  I don’t know about bottled or distilled but it seems to me that if you’re considering using a litre of Evian for your naturally-fermented hot sauce you’re probably on the wrong website.

Brine covered peppers before fermentation has begun

Brine covered peppers before fermentation has begun

Clean the peppers.  Trim any significant bruised or discolored spots.  Prepare the 4% brine by dissolving 40 grams of kosher for every litre of water.  Stuff peppers and peeled cloves of garlic  into two Mason jars, or other suitable containers.  Carefully pour brine into containers so that peppers are submerged.

Cover and store in a cool, dark space for one to two weeks.  Check the containers periodically, remove any scum.  Watch for bubbling to cease.

To handle the pickled peppers wear gloves, use a dishwasher-safe cutting board, and work slowly and in batches. My earlier allusion to pepper spray was only half-joking.

Looking down into the jars once fermentation is complete

Looking down into the jars once fermentation is complete

After two weeks or once bubbling has finished the peppers are ready to be processed.  Remove them from the jars and drain, reserving the brine.  Cut off the stem ends and very roughly chop the peppers.  Working in batches (I needed two for the amount of peppers I had) puree the peppers and garlic in a blender with just enough white vinegar to get them moving.  You can add more vinegar later but, obviously, can’t take any away.  Once all of the peppers have been pureed return to blender, add 1/2 cup of brine, and the rest of the white vinegar.  Blend until homogeneous.  Add more vinegar if you desire a thinner sauce.

Bottle and store in the refrigerator.  Other sources claim this sauce will last a year in the refrigerator.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Ort. David Ort said: New post about the excellent hot sauce I made with naturally pickled hot peppers. [...]

  2. sd says:

    Great little recipe, i must try this.

  3. foodwithlegs says:

    sd, it really is a good sauce. Very very easy too. The hardest parts are waiting the ten or so days for the peppers to ferment and being careful about the whole not touching your eyes during the blending step.

    I’ll take this opportunity to note that this sauce really has improved with a couple days in the fridge. I find that a lot of hot sauces are only good for their hot kick. This can be a good thing when it forces us to quickly swallow something which would become unpleasant if left in the mouth (I’m thinking of oysters or food that is particularly bland or overly-rich and unctuous) but this sauce has more of a seasoning quality to it. I don’t know whether its the fermentation or the salty brine but I definitely find that as the kick fades it really enhances other flavours.

  4. [...] into it not taste good?  The casserole needed more spice (I added a dollop of my homemade fermented hot sauce) and I do notice that the CI recipe uses a pinch of [...]

  5. [...] 5: Fermented hot sauce.  I quite like this post.  The product is great and I’ll have to make some more as soon as [...]

  6. Hot Sauce says:

    This is a great article and I found it very interesting. I bet that stuff is very hot.
    Hot Sauce

  7. Susan says:

    While I’m encouraged to see another lactofermenter out there, I do wonder why you use vinegar to make the sauce. It’s great at killing bacteria, as well as your beautiful lactobacillus :(

    To ensure these wonderful little bugs find their way to your gut, you can purée everything first (sans vineagar!) and ferment the sauce in it’s entirety for about 30 days. It will keep for up to three years in the fridge — if it lasts that long.

    Happy fermenting!

  8. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the comment, Susan. I’m in the process, right now, of giving this method a shot.

    My only concern is if the peppers are pureed before going into the brine how do you keep little bits from floating on the surface and developing mold?

  9. [...] recent commenter on last year’s post offered the suggestion that instead of fermenting, pureeing, and adding vinegar I alter the process [...]

  10. mary says:

    so glad i found your blog here! i’ve made tons of pickles but never hot sauce like this. i’m planning on getting started tonight. (the grocery stores here don’t have ANY good hot sauce despite the their grotesque size). now i’m wondering though, do you think roasted peppers would ferment tastefully? i’ll probably give it a shot in a small batch and let you know but wanted to see if you had any advice. thanks!

  11. kc says:

    This sounds like a great fermented pepper sauce recipe. I think the method of fermenting the peppers whole is a great idea and does help to keep pureed peppers from floating above the brine. If you want to use vinegar, just use Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar – it contains the mother so it has live active cultures as well. It will not kill your beneficial bacteria like white vinegar will (did you know white vinegar is made from GMO corn?). I have fermented finely chopped peppers and onions before and they didn’t form mold, but I use the closed jar method. My method to keep veggies below the brine level is to fill a square of muslin, organza or thin cotton tied with cotton twine with glass decorator marbles that have been washed and sterilized. This works very well when there are tiny pieces to keep submerged and they can be washed and reused repeatedly. Consider adding some onion to your ferment next time……onions really go well with garlic and hot peppers.

  12. Russ Koch says:

    I started using a brewer’s sanitizer on my jars and crocks before loading the veggies. I have found it helps a lot!

  13. [...] salt for your brine.  After reading David’s article on Food with Legs, I opted for a 3.6% brine as opposed to my usual 5% mix.  I was thrilled with the results.  To [...]

  14. steve says:

    Interesting, I didn’t know there was a farmers market at Mel Lastman’s (I live close by). I’m going to be doing my first ferment this year, I’ve started a number of varieties for the summer (mainly super hots), I’m curious to see how things will turn out. Thanks for the insight!

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